If You Can’t Beat Them … Make Them Useful

When our ancestors sat around the campfire at night what did they do? They told stories. With the help of dance, drawing, trance and drama, humans have shared their histories, invented myths and explanations, scared each other silly and comforted themselves with stories.

Yesterday evening as I settled in front of the TV with a bowl of gnocchi and a great line up on the ABC, I wondered if I was wasting several hours when I could have been writing, painting or cleaning out the cupboards.

Why do we spend so much of our time watching television? Because we still love stories and the big flat screen in the living room is our version of the camp fire.

I watched a documentary about the amazing life of Rolf Harris and responded with wonderment and awe to his energy and creativity, still going strong at eighty. I found plenty of humour in it too as he described his attempts to manage his impulsivity, sometimes letting it have free rein when, for example, he swept his future wife off her feet and ran the length of the Royal Academy with her in his arms. I also watched him keep it in check as he placed one studied paint stroke after another onto his canvas while painting the Queen’s portrait. I saw his face change as he listened with understanding and empathy to the more searching questions of his interviewer and heard him choose his words carefully and thoughtfully as he sought to respond with clarity and precision.

Later in the evening I watched an episode of New Tricks and followed the gradual building of a solution to an old crime as the investigators took in data with all their senses and thought flexibly, moving beyond the obvious answers that had not well served previous attempts to solve the crime. As they incorporated more and more information, they built a summary on a white board, posed questions and sought answers. Using each other’s strengths and idiosyncrasies they thought interdependently, bringing past knowledge to bearon their attempts to solve an old murder.

And now, here I am thinking hard about all the thinking I was observing on my TV last night – I’m thinking metacognitively!

We are the only species that loves stories. Dogs don’t sit around swapping yarns and neither do the apes. They have no plot lines, no comedies of errors, no character development, no gradual revelations of clues and tidy denouements. With the help of television we can submerge ourselves in stories and in those fascinating real and imagined landscapes. We give ourselves the opportunity to witness and participate in all the Habits of Mind that support good thinking.

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2 Comments

Filed under Thinking

2 responses to “If You Can’t Beat Them … Make Them Useful

  1. Bonnie Griffith

    Thank you Pat for helping me justify my love of watching television. You gave me a whole new slant. I find that I love watching PBS, particularly English mysteries and comedies. Well written and acted comedy on any network helps me decompress because my job is so serious and often sad. And my main guilty pleasure is watching HGTV because it sparks my creative imagination. I think I’ll put down the guilt label now.

    • It seems to me that guilt is such a waste of energy. You seem to have some very positive uses for television, not least of all the opportunity to simply turn off and enter into worlds that are different enough from our real worlds that they let us relax some of our overused psychic and emotional muscles and exercise some of the ones that are mostly idle. Thanks for your comment Bonnie.

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